OP-ED: CCOs are vital to the protection of a firm's reputation

"A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house."

"A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house."

Sage words when written; appropriate sentiments for today's PR practitioners. And while the designa- tion "prophet" might seem a bit of a stretch applied to those in the PR profession, there is a striking resemblance when comparing the respect accorded to PR pros in most corporate settings - until and unless the wheels come off and the fires are burning at the door. And as the attention of the American public continues to be riveted by corporate misbehavior, paper profits, golden parachutes, outright lies, and deceit at heavy cost to stockholders, employees, quality, and the "public good," today's quote might more likely read, "A profit without honor accrues neither to its country nor its own house." Throughout this crisis, many people have questioned where PR, as the corporate conscience, was hiding during these instances of high-profile corporate misconduct. The answer is PR was not hiding; it most likely just wasn't there. Effective PR counsel can indeed serve as a sounding board, as corporate conscience, as a mirror reflecting the attitudes and reactions of a company's publics, and as a directional compass for the organization. But such counsel cannot assist if it is not sought, nor has it failed if it is never heard. I'm reminded of a saying by one of my college professors in describing the PR function: "We do not get to drive the train, nor even ring the bell, but let it jump the track and see who catches hell." What seems to be overlooked, if not ignored, in many corporate settings is that it's all about relationships. The relationships that an organization fosters with both its internal and external publics are the primary building blocks of trust for that organization. Ultimately, trust is the underpinning of its reputation and its success. And like it or not, recognize it or not, the primary responsibility for building and maintaining trust relationships rests on an organization's PR. So how can an organization ensure that its conscience, values, goals, and objectives are on target and receiving support? The answer is contained in three simple words - chief communication officer (CCO). Had there been a chief communication officer involved from the beginning in the deliberations and decisions, perhaps the swamps in which some of our leading corporate citizens are mired might have been avoided. A CCO with the proper background, resources, and respect might have provided the lightning rod necessary to bring into question the "profit at all costs" focus of the discussions. A CCO worth his or her salt would have directed attention to the potential disaster that such actions portend to the trusting relationships that provide a solid foundation for excellence in corporate reputation. While it is a given that the advisers to the C-suite will include a chief legal counsel, a chief accounting officer, and other "chiefs" responsible for manufacturing, production, distribution, and even human relations, there seldom is a chief whose areas of expertise include the acquisition and analysis of attitudinal research, trends, behavioral science, and the psychology of communication - in short, a PR professional. That function is still relegated to the "warrior" legions who are viewed as little more than message carriers, "spin artists" (I hate that term), and the people who get us "free publicity." While the importance of the CCO function is beginning to be more fully understood, progress is slow. Organizations have benefitted from their travails in which they have lost and then been faced with the daunting task of rebuilding public, employee, and investor trust. In most, if not all, of these corporations and organizations, PR pros are playing a much greater role in the management of the organization's reputation, often in the position of chief communication officer. How sad that it takes a catastrophe to open the eyes of the organization to one of its most undervalued and underused resources. Armed with the proper skills and talents, the chief communication officer can serve as the keeper of the corporate conscience and provide valuable insight to the management team in the promotion and protection of reputation, the organization's most valuable asset. It's more than just protecting the brand; it's building the lasting bond necessary for long-term success. And speaking of prophets, one can always turn to Machiavelli: "All armed prophets succeed and unarmed prophets come to ruin." (The Prince VI).
  • Michael Herman is chairman of the PRSA Counselors Academy. He's also president and COO of Epley Associates/Public Relations, which has offices in Raleigh and Charlotte, NC.

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